When I was 17, I worked in a factory where a young woman was targeted for harassment. Racist notes were left on her car windshield and break room locker. Management seemed blase about the threats, even after the girl’s tires were slashed. Eventually, I joined two other workers (out of a couple of hundred) who demanded action. Two days later, the victim was gone. She was fired, management said, because she wrote the notes herself. I knew that wasn’t true because she was a friend of mine and I hardly left her side after the notes started coming. I met her in the parking lot in the morning, took breaks with her, and left the building with her in the evening. I found several of the notes and the slashed tires with her. I saw her shaking and teary-eyed.
I abruptly quit the job, leaving the President a three-page letter which I copied to the local newspaper. Neither of them ever responded and several of my friends pointed out that I was an idiot for quitting a job on principle, with no back-up plan and no way to pay my rent. My leaving didn’t change anything at the factory, it didn’t change anybody’s mind, and it didn’t do anything to help my now jobless friend. All of that was true, but it felt good — it felt absolutely right — to walk out the door in protest.
Actually, it felt more than right. It felt necessary. At 17, everything that I idealized seemed to be at stake. All the social values that I learned from men and women greater than myself, and that I clung to out of hopes for my own future, informed me that it was better to live on Saltines and water than to be complacent about injustices. The idealists of my generation, having been too young for the protests of the 60s, were supposed to carry the torches of equality and justice forward. It was up to us not to let all those marches and speeches go to waste. We owed our own and possibly brighter futures to those who were doused by fire hoses and taunted on their way to school. We owed a debt of conscience and respect to Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, not to mention those who were strung up by trees and lynched, or driven out of their homes by mobs with burning crosses.
As young women, we needed to continue the fight for equal rights. To advance the cause of feminism until our sex was constitutionally as well as socially equal. It was up to us to end a culture of second-classdom and the systemic degradation of our minds, bodies, and abilities. As mothers and potential mothers, it was up to us to fulfill our own potential so that our children could fulfill theirs.
Later, as a single mother and a gay woman (first in denial, then in the closet, and finally out) I knew without a doubt that the civil rights of others were tied to my own and my children’s. When one underclass or minority is denied just treatment, opportunity and equality, it becomes easier to deny others based on the same exclusionary thinking that creates a privileged class with immense power and an underprivileged class with virtually none.
So I fought back when men in the casinos thought my skirt was an invitation to cop a feel. I fought back when I was in radio and earning $10,000 a year less than my male counterparts. I fought as best I could against a system that let my ex-husband get away with paying no child support and then penalized me for being one of the working poor. I fought against discrimination, racism, sexism, rape, child abuse, social injustice, sexual harassment, inadequate systems, and inferior schools. When I heard hate speech, I called the speaker out, often times biting back my fear of getting fired or being perceived as a troublemaker.
And then one day, I’m not sure exactly when — maybe it was when celebrities started talking about their own child abuse in droves, or Don Henley wrote “Get Over It“, or maybe it was after Rodney King and the L.A. riots — and maybe it was because a worn society felt a need for some respite after a glut of painful stories — but suddenly people seemed quick to will real problems into virtual nonexistence or turn them into a joke. Stories of injustice became a card to be pulled, an act to be played, or a way to get rich quick. Those who stepped up to point out issues of racism were pulling the race card. Survivors of child abuse and rape were accused of “playing the victim” when telling their stories. Women who complained about unequal treatment or sexual harassment were just out to exploit their employers and make a quick buck. Talking about any sort of social disparity or injustice brought about charges of whining or having an undue sense of entitlement.
Very few people remember the name Stella Lieback, but everyone remembers the story of the 79 year old woman who sued McDonalds for the 3rd degree burns she suffered as a result of their overheated coffee. Almost everyone I’ve ever talked to about the case believes it’s ridiculous — who wouldn’t know that coffee is hot? What kind of idiot sues for that? Can you believe she actually won? Well, yes, I can. I actually followed the story and knew how serious Lieback’s injuries were and how many surgeries she needed. When the documentary Hot Coffee finally came out in 2011, I thought Lieback (as well as several others featured) would be redeemed from their place in “frivolous lawsuit” history, but of course the documentary wasn’t cause for the type of sensational media coverage that the lawsuit was.
The backlash against the generations that fought for civil rights has been brutal. The left/right political divide has,unfortunately, become a hunting field rife with fear and hatred. Certainly, not all Republicans are racist, sexist, or homophobic, but no one can logically deny that the right wing has become a convenient place for those who are. The historical event of America’s first minority president alternately confirmed and defied the often adamant conviction that we were living in a post-racial society, where minorities — if only they’d quit complaining and expecting the world to be handed to them on a platter — were really no different or differently treated than anyone else. Barack Obama was a Black man who was voted into the highest office in the land, but he was also a target in a way no white man, let alone the President, could be.
The ugliness of racism hit America like a particularly cold and hard rain after a near-drought thick with labored and uneasy silence. Of course, racism was always there, but an Obama presidency seemed to trigger a more public display of what was, for the most part, being carefully kept behind closed doors or diligently swept under the rug.
The recent murder of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin has unwittingly thrown another magnifying glass over problems that go deeper than the death of one Black teenager. While a few prominent Republicans have called for a full investigation, right wing news pundits seem to have conscientiously chosen to make George Zimmerman their prized dog in this fight, all while denying racism as a factor in Zimmerman’s actions or their own bias. Despite what the majority of the public sees as compelling pre-trial evidence against Zimmerman — at least enough to bring about his arrest — Zimmerman remains free and a significant number of people seem intent on finding ways to blame the victim. They point to the number of Black men in prison as just cause for Zimmerman’s suspicions. They blame Martin for wearing his hood up in the rain, for running, for possibly fighting back against the man who stalked and then chased after him. They’ve pointed to Martin’s suspension from school, his 6’3″ frame, and more in an effort to justify the teen’s death. One of the top news stories today was that of a white supremacist who supposedly hacked into Martin’s email and social media accounts in order to smear the dead youth. “Where did all the liberals go,” the racist hacker taunted. “Did they run off because they can’t handle the facts?”
Undoubtedly, (and perhaps to the chagrin of moderate Republicans, although we rarely hear from them anymore), the right wing has become a harbor for those who are racist, sexist and regressive, often in the name of religion. (In 2011 alone, Republican politicians across the country introduced almost 1000 bills to restrict women’s reproductive rights.)
While I could go on (and on and on) about the radicalism of the “new Republicans” there are questions I find more pressing: Will this deep divide bring about a renaissance of ideals that strive to move our country to move forward instead of backwards?
Will the Left and center recover from the battle fatigue of the 60s, and move past the imposed denials and near-silence of more recent decades, in order to usher in a new era of civil rights? Will we finally make real the promises of democracy that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke so eloquently on:
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.
Will we push back against those who would make a card, a joke, or a lie out of real social issues? Will we demand, finally, that the checks of justice, equality and liberty be made good?
Will the idealists rise from their slumber in order to fight what is sure to be a protracted battle? Will the mothers and fathers of a new generation rise up to fight for the rights of all children? Will new architects of justice come down from their ivory towers to help restore our crumbling social structures?
I don’t know. But I am standing on the mountainside, ready to ring the bell.